Clay Shirky argues in his new book ‘Cognitive Surplus‘ that interactive media and online social networking is creating a more collaborative, democratic world. At a recent lecture at the London School of Economics, Shirky noted how ‘civic’ sites such as PatientsLikeMe can create real social change and empower people in every community, as well as enabling individuals to help one another before turning to the state; music to the ears of Big Society advocates no doubt.

It is indeed a strong argument that civic engagement and social networking sites can aid the success of the Big Society, and offer powerful and innovative tools for both individuals and institutions. This week Joseph Rowntree Foundation research found that the public now feel home internet access is vital to participate in society. Furthermore, communications experts have warned that the coalition Government will be moving a lot of their services online, from form-filling to help-lines, in a bid to cut costs. Thus not only is internet access and literacy a useful engaging tool in the Big Society, but perhaps soon to be a necessity for every individual from the most affluent of communities to the most deprived neighbourhoods.

Given all this, I have been somewhat surprised whilst speaking to local people in a number of neighbourhoods in Leeds for our joint research project Pathways through Participation how the online revolution is still to reach so many people in certain communities. I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised; a quarter of people in Britain have inadequate broadband connections, and 10 million adults in the UK have never used the internet at all, four million of who are among the most disadvantaged members of society.

Recognising the existence of a ‘digital underclass’ is of course nothing new. Nearly a decade ago when the Wired Up communities programme was launched, the then Learning and Technology minister Michael Wills stressed how “There is a gulf emerging between those who have new technologies and those who do not – and it’s a gap that must be narrowed if we are to create a fair and prosperous society”. Five years later and research is still finding how many families in the UK are seriously disadvantaged when it comes to internet access. Today however, despite initiatives such as Race Online 2012, internet access is more a necessity than ever, and as the links above show, many are being left behind as we are moving towards a new era of Big Society which could be driven as much by online activity as offline. And while some European nations are making broadband internet a legal right, the coalition Government here in the UK has instead made a U-turn on repealing the Digital Economy Act, which many argue will increase digital exclusion. As the bill may result in arduous burdens being placed on small companies, schools and libraries, the most vulnerable members of society and those most in need of online availability could find their internet access significantly reduced.

Many of those ‘unconnected’ are living in isolated rural areas, and it is widely acknowledged that older people are at higher risk of digital exclusion than the young. Thus exploration into how people do, and do not, participate within different communities (offline and online) is crucial. This needs to be combined with a better understanding of how this participation is shaped throughout life, from young to old.

Our Pathways through Participation project is doing exactly this; exploring individual participation in rural, suburban and inner-city areas, right across individuals’ life courses. Research like this, into how and why people participate in online as well as offline spaces, is the only way that policy makers will be able to understand and deal with the inequalities that exist. Without this richer understanding, efforts to harness civic energy for the Big Society risk exacerbating rather than closing the Great Divide.

Eddie Cowling